SOME Quilt Clothes Must Die

(Note: I’ve added in some links that didn’t publish properly the first time + some extra fyi info.)

I don’t usually get involved in internet drama. I have enough going on in my own life. I don’t need to get riled up about stuff that won’t be important to the screamers and yellers once the next outrage comes along. Social media is so often at the heart of modern conflict; this is where we go off the rails and frankly my emotional health just can’t keep up with the rapid fire umbrage.

I’m a Libra and a moderate in most things. I like equilibrium and I make every effort to understand every side of a story. I do, however, have some thoughts about Mary Fons‘ recent YouTube video “Quilt Clothes Must Die” so here they are. This will be long. I am wordy. Aren’t you glad you don’t have to read my writing every day? Lol!

For my non-quilting peeps, Mary is a familiar name in the quilting world. She is a contributing editor for Quiltfolk magazine and the daughter of well-known quilter Marianne Fons. If you’ve dabbled in sewing and other quilt-adjacent handiwork, you may have heard of the brand Fons & Porter. I won’t get into their whole history…. suffice it to say Mary knows quilts, she does a lot of research, and, obviously, she has strong feelings and things to say.

So, Mary recently posted a YouTube video, called Quilt Clothes Must Die, taking aim at the fashion design trend of gathering up vintage and antique quilts and hacking them up to make pricy garments. Of course people who can’t afford those go looking elsewhere and textile brokers are all too happy to feed the businesses of inventive entrepreneurs who have co-opted the trend. Etsy abounds with jackets, coats, kimono, and all sorts of things made from former quilts.

Before I get into this any further, let me say that I am a strong believer in sustainability, reuse, and recycling, as well as artistic license. There are dump piles overflowing with fast fashion textile garbage all over the world. Western countries gobble up the fast fashion, churned out by factories in devloping nations, where workers – often toiling in dangerous conditions – make very low wages.

We wear these garments a few times and toss them out. Where they head to dumps or are shipped out (do you really think your donations are going on the racks at Goodwill?) to dumping grounds in the very developing nations where they were created.

I could go on and on about this but smarter people than me have written volumes on the topic. If you are completely ignorant on this issue, that’s ok, but I urge you look into it before you buy your next goth-inspired outfit from Shein or a pile of $5 t-shirts from Old Navy.

I’ll get into artistic license in a minute. That’s also important to me big-time because I use vintage textiles in my work.

So Mary posted her video, I commented with my two cents and I moved on. But holy crap. It seems as if every quilt “celebrity” and garden-variety maker had all kinds of vitriol for Mary. I read some of it. I couldn’t watch the response videos. But it was the usual stuff, I think. LOTS of zeal and knee-jerk reactions.

Mary tends to be a little extra too. (Love you, lady! But I think you know this about yourself.) She is passionate about quilts, the people who make them, elevating women’s work, etc. You would know this if you’ve ever heard any of her talks, read her writing, attended her Quilt Nerd broadcasts on Twitch, or watched the Quilt Nerd videos on YouTube

Because I do attend/watch Quilt Nerd broadcasts, I can confidently say that I’ve never seen any of the people who wigged out on social media regularly interacting with Mary. I will admit I haven’t searched extensively but I only see one or two people saying “gawd, Mary! What the hell? I don’t agree. Let’s have some civilized, two-way dialog about it.” Instead I see approximately 1,000 comments on her IG and half a dozen response videos calling her “the quilt police,” “another white woman gatekeeping,” and proudly proclaiming “don’t tell me what to do, bitch!”

I’m not Mary’s bestie, but I have interacted directly with her online and I have a lot of respect for her. I’m also not here to be her apologist; although I feel there is more behind the mud slinging than simply disagreeing with her position. I’m not interested in trying to unpack any of that. But I will say, I left the “mainstream” quilt movement because of stuff like this.

Once upon a time, I looked to the quilting world as a respite from fine arts. The old guard of the mid- to late-20th century (the actual “quilt police”) were being replaced with new voices and new techniques. My mom’s experiences from the quilting revival in the ’70s had transformed into something totally different. But alas, a lot of those “new” voices have fallen into the very same cliquishness and snobbery they initially reviled. So back to the galleries I go. At least I know everyone there thinks I’m garbage unless a buyer for my work shows up. LOL!

Good grief, those were some tangents. Ok. Quilt clothes.

THE VIDEO

Where I think Mary went sideways was in failing to differentiate between the individual reuse of beloved quilts and the use of quilts as just another trendy textile by opportunists. Maybe she doesn’t want to differentiate (although I think she and I are of the same mind). But I believe there should be a difference in messaging for actual quilters/quilt lovers and the rest of the greedy, non-quilting populace.

There may also have been use of the word “appropriation” in the video. Oof. I think I know where she was going with that but it was a poor choice of words. When we use a word like “appropriation” to describe perceived denigration of American handiwork, there will be trouble. No bueno. However, Mary generally speaks unscripted and sometimes our words don’t fit our actual meaning. I don’t believe she needs to be vilified or canceled. Just reminded. Trust me, she knows. (Plus, actions speak louder than words.)

Mary took issue with the work of Emily Bode, a high profile fashion designer (and a 30-something white woman, btw) who makes lovely coats and other garments out of what appear to ME to be pristine antique quilts. The clothes are heartbreakingly expensive. I don’t know anyone who owns a Bode creation but I have images in my head of privileged white people trotting these “statement pieces” out occasionally but mostly letting them languish in closets just as they ostensibly did when they were quilts.

Mary also took shots at Calvin Klein. This is old news. Calvin Klein did the same thing Emily Bode has been up to. He just did it in the ’80s before Bode was born. I’m old so I remember. We’ve all bitched about it. Honestly I wonder where those Calvin Klein quilt blazers are? I have yet to see anyone pull one out. That would be truly interesting to look at.

(I ran across a super piece posted in 2018 by Joe Cunningham about Calvin Klein’s more recent quilt hijinks, along with references to Sanford Biggers, who I completely forgot about! So yeah, while Quilt Coat-gate may sound like a little blip of drama, but it’s really about much larger issues that have raged on in the creative world for decades.)

As with all things fashion, entrepreneuring minds have found ways of duplicating the Bode looks for less dough. From IG influencers who get “quilt drops” from textile brokers for the purpose of clothing production to companies that will make you whatever you want with the quilt you send them.

A quilt historian and collector I follow and respect shared a story on IG where a person purchased an antique quilt from her and asked for it to be sent directly to one of these quilt coat maker companies. The collector rescinded the sale and explained that she wouldn’t sell the quilt for it to be cut up. Bold move, but one I wholeheartedly support.

Obviously I know nothing about the purchaser in this anecdote but I’m going to guess they didn’t give a rat’s ass about history, preservation, education, the social implications, etc. That person wanted something unique and they had the funds to get it. End of story.

Alright, let me blather on about some of the specific points people are making in response to Mary’s stance.

I CAN DO AS I PLEASE WITH MY QUILTS

Yep, you sure can. And you can buy a Van Gogh and publicly burn it. Or you can buy someone’s gawd awful Wine & Paint Nite art and hang it in a prominent place, treasuring it forever and ever. Beauty and value are in the eye of the beholder. Museums save the really “important” stuff but certainly not even close to all of it. There are a zillion issues to be explored and discussed in museum governance too but that’s for another day.

There are many vintage and antique quilts out there made by countless unsung women (and a few men!) which can be studied, shown, and used as design inspiration and education. They will never make it into a museum, but they are nontheless important. When they are gathered up to be used just as a cool, unique raw material the history and integrity somewhat lost.

I readily admit I use vintage textiles, orphaned quilt blocks and similar treasures in my work. I am also discerning about what I use. I have some amazing quilt tops that would make awesome clothes but there are aspects of them that cause me to lean toward preservation. These are the rules I have set for myself. I do feel there is a difference between using “found” materials in art vs. creating casual consumer goods.

NOT ALL QUILTS ARE WORTH SAVING

I totally agree. Many of the quilts made today will be treasured by recipients. But tomorrow they are just as likely be tossed, sent to Goodwill, or packed away. We are seeing this very thing happening with the results of the last quilt revival. Make use of them! And if that’s as a coat or a pair of pants, instead of on the bed or on the wall, go for it.

Someone worked hard on that quilt. Maybe they’d lose their mind if they knew you made it into a jumpsuit. But it’s yours. By all means, do as you please.

There are tons of “cutter” quilts out there. These have been used and loved and washed to death and are falling apart. People have been making Christmas stockings with them for decades. Mary seemed to throw a punch at this too, but I will say this is again where we diverge.

Items made from true cutter quilts represent real deal upcycling, IMO. (Although a quilt with a few minor issues that can be repaired? That is not a cutter quilt!) Some people will go on to treasure these items. Others will pitch them when the trend is over, just like they would toss out the quilts themselves.

I will go on the record here. I made a quilt coat out of a true vintage cutter quilt, using Folkwear’s varsity jacket pattern. I posted a bit on IG about it as I was getting started but haven’t shared the end result. It was a quilt purchased by a family member from a resale shop, she didn’t want it anymore, and I snatched it up before she could finish asking.

So it was saved twice, but was in rough shape. I still agonized over cutting into it. I finally made the decision and did it. I don’t love the end result, but it’s too late. I still need to make all the repairs – I have vintage fabric scraps selected for that. I hope to have time to do that soon and make my sow’s ear jacket a little more silk purse-like.

There are tons of people out there who have done the same. I remember seeing a TikTok in 2020 where a young man was proudly wearing the hoodie his grandmother made him from a quilt she picked up at Goodwill. The quilt was clearly from the ’80s or ’90s, probably from a kit. It was definitely asking to be something more amazing than a discard. I loved it! It was a sweet story of a kid and his grandma and a really unique gift she made him.

I can’t speak for Mary, but I feel like this is NOT the kind of thing that’s the problem. But rather what happens next: there were all the TikTok comments clammoring for more – “I want one!” “<off to raid the linen closet>” “who can make me one if I go get a quilt?” And this is where the issues start. Trends are gonna trend. Find any average person making something cool and you’ll see this “gotta have it” mentality from their audience.

The entrepreneurs see this. They’re not ignorant. They also know about Bode. The dollar signs form in their eyes. Textile brokers are consulted. The machine of capitalism grinds on. Remember what Miranda Priestly told us about the lumpy blue sweater? In actuality those “people in the room” mine all kinds of sources for inspiration. Cerulean blue was not born from the mind of Oscar de la Renta. It was seen in nature, culture, somewhere and then made into a big deal.

Here is the best metaphor I can think of for the toxicity of trends… imagine a fish that is abundant in some places but perhaps not ubiquitous. A devoted, niche population loves the fish. They carefully cultivate it because it is a noble fish and its flesh is delicious and nourishing.

Then a celebrity chef comes along, delights in the tasty fish, puts it on their menu, the privileged can’t get enough, Good Morning America covers it,  everyone wants a bite, and the overfishing begins. Maybe it gets more affordable or the population at large realizes they can order it through Amazon.

Sure, there are many fish in the sea. Tilapia and tuna aren’t going away. They will always be there for keto diets and tuna noodle casserole and supermarket sushi. But the noble, slightly rare fish is now endangered.

These are the quilts my heart breaks for. Just like the noble fish, there is not an infinite supply of Depression era patchwork or Victorian crazy quilts or desperation quilts made from work clothes. Sometimes it’s not even the quilts themselves but rather the historical data they provide. While this info might still be gleaned from the cut up quilt, there is other info that will be irretrievably lost. The bigger questions are: “what is valuable?” “what is rare?” “what is expendable?” and “who gets to decide?”

Marjorie Childress is an amazing collector (she might be the collector I referenced earlier. wink. wink.). Take a look at the quilts she posts on her IG and compare them to the stuff Bode makes. The Childress Collection was hung at QuiltCon as an important historical reference – oohed and ahhed over for the uniqueness of the quilts and usefulness as educational artifacts. Some of those on display were made by unknown African American women. Without the public showing of such collections these pieces would never see the light of day. (Eta: Marjorie commented on this post. Please scroll down to read her comments and clarification.)

Bode sources the same quilts. Who is doing the more responsible thing, Childress or Bode?

(another note… Roderick Kiracofe literally wrote the book on one of the categories of quilts I’m referring to. His Instagram and the book itself — Unconventional & Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar 1950 – 2000 — are excellent references if you’re interested in this stuff as it pertains to vintage quilts.)

MARY IS JUST ANOTHER GATEKEEPING WHITE WOMAN OF PRIVILEGE

I’m sure I will get some tar and feathers for this one… but here goes.

I wish this wasn’t the go-to accusation in response to every offense people encounter. It results in deaf ears when there are REAL issues caused by privilege, race, class that must be addressed.

I’m not saying there aren’t representation issues for POC, queer people, and other minority groups in quilting/arts & crafts. There ABSOLUTELY are. I applaud all the people who speak out, are allies, educate themselves, elevate marginalized voices, etc. This is important work that must continue because there are still problematic practices going on.

However, Mary going on the record with her opinion is not a problematic practice. She works hard to educate and to preserve knowledge about quilts made by all kinds of quilters, along with the history of those makers, which very much includes marginalized people. Any number of the quilts Mary is advocating for saving were MADE BY UN-NAMED AFRICAN AMERICANS (see Childress Collection reference above). If Bode snatched up all of the vintage Gee’s Bend quilts that are still out there and made them into coats for people who can afford $$$$$ quilt coats, would you still be yelling at Mary?

Marginalized people are more likely to have their belongings scattered to the wind when they pass on. I guarantee there are unprovenanced vintage/antique textiles made by non-white people on the backs of Bode customers. Compare that to the careful preservation and documentation (which = EDUCATION) of Majorie Childress’ collection. Which would you prefer?

There is currently a $1,500 Bode jacket at Nordstrom: “Inspired by a 1920s Kantha quilt from West Bengal, India, this cotton jacket is intricately detailed with floral and geometric stitching for an antiquey look.” So new fabric/handiwork?… but… I don’t know. I’m not sure how comfortable I am with that either. I could be wrong, but I feel like the original Kantha quilt was made into an even more expensive one-of-a-kind jacket. And then copied because Nordstrom wanted it.

SUSTAINABILTY, REUSE, AND UPCYCLING

There is a well-documented historical standard of reuse and re-making with clothing, linens, etc. I think this is definitely something we need to do more of and keep doing. If a Bode quilt chore coat is the only coat you’d ever own (like the textile recyclers of yore) and you would wear it every day until it is rags or until you make it jnto something else, like a smaller coat… then that seems like a sustainable practice. But that’s not what’s happening here.

Bode is known for buying quilts at auction. The “I’m saving unloved textiles from the dump” song and dance is 1,000% bullshit. While I’ve never handled a Bode garment in person, I’ve studied the pictures as best as I can and I do not see stains, holes, visible repairs, etc. These are pristine quilts and textiles that were preserved by families, collectors, or dealers. These are quilts desired by educators and quilt lovers who still want to use them as quilts.

I know very little about the textile brokers and the procurement process. I’ve only seen the pictures of their spoils and it makes my stomach hurt. But I’d like to learn more so I can form more solidly factual opinions.

Like I always say, it’s a free country, buy ’em up, keep me (educator and collector, textile artist) and my two cents out of the equation, and go to town with the scissors. Just don’t expect me and other educators/historians/researchers to like it.

By the way, do you want to know what IS truly sustainable? Gathering up all that fast fashion fabric that ACTUALLY languishes in dumps, creating quilted yardage with the reclaimed fabric, and then making kick-ass clothes!

I have cut up a number of my own quilts (meaning made by my hands… I’ve only killed one vintage quilt), some made with reclaimed fabric, to create a variety of pieces. If I can do it, why can’t high-volume quilt murderers do the same?

BOTTOM LINE

Do what you want with the things you own. That’s your prerogative. But also think about the big picture with stuff like this. Who and what do you stand for when you source raw materials? Who and what are you really elevating from your soapbox? What is your ultimate intention with the things you make?

That is all. Come for me, I guess?

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